Battle of the Atlantic

The Battle of the Atlantic along the coast was the closest World War II got to the U.S. Archaeologists are documenting the wrecks of allied ships and German U-boats to study and preserve in photos and videos a part of the nation's history.

OUTER BANKS - It looms out of the dark blue of the ocean depths. While dozens of varieties of ocean fish swim by and the occasional sand shark prowls around, divers swim slowly downwards towards the ocean bottom. Clouds of bubbles trail the divers. Cameras with blazing lights cut through the murky water.

Suddenly, a ship's hull appears out of the darkness. It is encrusted in lichens and coral. It is a grave, a memorial, a piece of the nation’s history, and an underwater reef. But in March 1942, the Dixie Arrow was a tanker steaming just offshore from the Outer Banks. The ship was sailing alone, loaded with fuel for the Allied war effort in Europe.

Unknown to its crew, a German U-boat was stalking the Dixie Arrow. The sub’s torpedoes hit their mark. After burning fiercely for hours, the Dixie Arrow and 11 members of her crew went down in 90 feet of water.

“You get a snapshot into the past, into a piece of our nation’s history,” says Lauren Heesemann, Monitor Sanctuary Coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA cares for and coordinates research on the shipwrecks off the North Carolina coast that rest in and are protected by the Marine Sanctuary. “You’re looking at the way it rests on the bottom, the way it has for 70 years, so you’re getting a snapshot in time. But these wrecks are also valuable as artificial reefs, they provide habitat for creatures. So diving on the site is a beautiful experience, not just for the history but also to see the life it supports.”

The Dixie Arrow is one of the shipwrecks that are the focus of a research project to locate and document (with photos, videos and maps) the sea battle that raged off North Carolina’s coast during World War II. It’s called the Battle of the Atlantic expedition.

“There’s a number of reasons we launched this expedition,” says Heesemann. “One is to document these wrecks while they are still around because they are non-renewable resources and they won’t be around forever. So our goal is to document the wrecks and bring them to the public. And that education is the second goal because there are many people who may not know they exist at all, since a great portion of the public doesn’t know World War II came this close to the United States and the North Carolina coast.”

Maritime archaeologists working on the expedition estimate as many as 60 wrecks of Allied ships, both merchant and navy warships, as well as German U-boats lie on the ocean floor within 100 miles of Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout. 

The secret German plan called for a submarine assault on the American eastern seaboard. It was an area poorly defended and rich in merchant shipping targets. Through early 1942, U-boat crews struck at will, attacking ships and retreating to hide in deep water just off the continental shelf. So many merchant ships were sunk that captains referred to the area as Torpedo Junction. The Battle of the Atlantic was the closest scene of combat to the U.S. during the war.

Besides documenting the condition or each individual wreck, how it rests on the bottom and what the wreck tells about the ship’s history and its fate, the expedition is also studying each individual wreck's relation to all of the other shipwrecks.

That’s because many of the ships have a relationship to each other. Down the coast from the Dixie Arrow is the German submarine U-701, which is credited with sinking nine Allied ships and damaging four others. It was sunk in an Allied air and naval attack off the North Carolina coast in 1942.

“And so you are looking at a battlefield, an underwater battlefield,” adds Heesemann, pointing to a map which shows the hundreds of shipwrecks off the North Carolina coast. The shipwrecks date back centuries, but as you begin to notice dates next to the names of ships, you begin to realize how significant the Battle of the Atlantic really was.

“So you’re not just learning about this wreck, or the people on this wreck, you’re learning about the whole engagement that took place off the coast,” she adds. “It took almost six months of daily attacks and sinkings before the Allies realized they needed to do something to protect the shipping along the coast. That’s when ships started traveling in convoys and sailed with lights out. Residents along the coast were also told to turn their lights out to make the ships more difficult to find.”

It’s maritime detective work. Researchers not only want to document the wreck, what ship it is and where it is located, they are also looking at the condition of the wreck. The hull and other items made from steel and iron will eventually corrode and disintegrate. Objects made from non-ferrous metals, such as brass and bronze, will not corrode as easily.

The Battle of the Atlantic project is a joint effort between NOAA, the University of North Carolina Coastal Studies Institute and East Carolina University.

“It’s a different record set of history,” says Dr. Nathan Richards, Assistant Professor of Maritime History at East Carolina University, who also works on the Battle of the Atlantic Expedition. “We have history, we know what history means, we have historical records, historians know how to read, interpret, and decipher them. But it’s the archaeological data that refines our views of the past and becomes a test of history because it can often shed lights into the psychological states of people that aren’t in the historical records.”

Dive trips are meticulously planned. Divers don’t have much time on the bottom so they must work quickly and efficiently. The conditions are often dangerous. Besides cameras, scientists utilize the latest technology to add to the historical record.
Dr. Richards points out a torpedo-looking device in his lab. It’s a silver tube with yellow fins in the middle and at the end. There’s a yellow plastic tip at this front. 

“This is a towable magnetometer that detects how a piece of iron, which has its own magnetic field, can disturb the earth’s magnet field,” Dr. Richards explains. “It then uses the data to draw a picture of the item, which gives us a unique almost 3-D image of the ship as it rests on the bottom.”

The magnetometer is towed behind a ship in a pre-planned grid pattern and it scans the bottom searching for a particular mass of iron, which could be an engine, anchor or cannon. Whatever the item, its magnetic field is going to disturb the earth’s field. That disturbance is measured and it is also mapped, because the magnetometer coordinates the disturbance with a GPS system. From those measurements, the device creates contour lines which allow us to create images.

Dr. Richards also points out the ROV, or remotely operated vehicle, that is also sitting in his lab. The black metal box, with four yellow tubes nestled alongside each corner, is a remote camera platform that can be operated from the deck of a ship on the surface. The ROV has lights on the two upper tubes, a camera located in the box in the middle, and space for a grappling arm or additional camera on the bottom.

"The thing about archaeology is that it is tangible while so much of history is intangible; a feeling, a psyche, a culture,” says Dr. Richards. “That’s part of what makes this project so appealing because it is a chance to see and interact with the past directly and with historical objects, even though they are inaccessible to most people.”

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